September 10, 2010

Shana tova u'metuka

On Tuesday evening we celebrated the beginning of 5771, the new Jewish year. Rik and I sang, toasted, ate and drank, surrounded by the love of close friends.

The next day at synagogue I was honored with the Kohen aliyah to the Torah. Every time I am asked to read this blessing, I think of my father. For Dad, being a Kohen, a descendant of the ancient Jewish priests, was a special responsibility and privilege.

(I remember the first time I was offered the Kohen aliyah, at summer camp when I was about 15. I knew about it a few days in advance and had to call home long distance -- collect! -- from the pay phone to be sure I knew my full Hebrew name: Yachna Maryam bat Shimon Shir haKohen u'Masha Leah. Dad was startled but happy to oblige.)

We stayed at synagogue until the point in the service where some imitate the high priest and physically prostate oneself on the ground. This is a gesture that has moved me since I learned about it. In some synagogues it's only done by the rabbi, or cantor, or whoever is leading the service. In some synagogues it isn't done at all. (For instance, I never saw this in my childhood Reform temple.)

Normally during one line in this prayer we "bend the knee" to God. On Rosh Hashanah, for Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern European descent, the custom changes. I sink to the floor on my knees, bend forward, and touch my forehead to the floor. This literal, physical prostration -- so rare in Judaism -- challenges me to humble myself in the presence of the Ineffable. And perhaps especially for me, given all the cancer in my bones, it's a reminder of my physical abilities and limitations.

All over the synagogue, at this moment, you see people step out of the rows of seats and into the aisles. Men, women; young and old; even the six-month pregnant woman in front of me, crouch down.

Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen of London wrote in 2005,
But Aleinu does not stop there. It affirms that God is not aloof or containable within some heavenly region. He is not remote, or even above our heads. Ki Adonai hu ha’Elohim bashamayim mima’al v’al ha’aretz mitachat, “The Lord is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath.” And here we have the reason for our full prostration on the ground: to give expression to the God who is not only located in the highest heavens, but also on earth below, indeed beneath our very feet.
I find this a most beautiful custom.

After services ended we enjoyed a festive meal with friends. Later in the afternoon many trekked down to the beach to perform tashlich, the casting away of our sins. For the first time since moving to Seattle, I was unable to walk down and back again, and so Rik and I made a quiet exit and came home for the evening.

All in all, it was a wonderful holiday. I am happy to be starting a new year!

1 comment:

  1. Aviva, from one of my classes, wished us all a Shannah Tovah (probably spelled wrong.) She talked about the apples and honey part, but not the rest of it. It's a nice idea to think of the new beginning as not simply another year, but truly a new spiritual beginning.